INDIANAPOLIS -- Why can’t it always be like this?
Like a boyfriend who only sends late night texts, the Indiana Pacers have been a frustrating team through their first 18 games. They treat you to an expensive dinner but won’t answer your calls the next morning. They’re cool to Netflix and chill, but it has to go down at their house and they get to pick the movie -- probably something with Adam Sandler.
They’ve been sour, but Friday they were sweet.
During the Pacers’ 118-97 rout of the lowly Brooklyn Nets at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, they did just about everything right. The shot the ball at an efficient clip (55 percent), moved the ball with ease (25 assists), gave consistent effort on defense (Brooklyn shot 42 percent through the third quarter) and won the battle on the boards (47-38). For the first time in weeks, Indiana played well against an inferior opponent.
More impressive, all that occurred without the assistance of forwards Paul George and C.J. Miles, their best wing players and most dynamic shooters. George sat with a sore lower back and lingering pain in his left ankle and will miss the next two games, as well. Miles is healing from a sore left knee suffered during a November 18 loss to Phoenix.
This win was desperately needed. Indiana (8-9) dropped three straight heading into the game, looking lifeless and melancholy on the court. Ball wasn’t life. Ball was a chore.
Yes, they snapped the losing skid. Yes, the Nets stink, but the quality of opponent doesn’t concern me as much as Indiana’s level of effort.
They defeat Oklahoma City on the road without George, playing focused and precise. They lose in embarrassing fashion to Philadelphia, the worst team in the league, even with George in his super hero costume. They treat you to a night on the town but call you a friend with benefits.
Why can’t they always be committed?
“It’s a long season, man,” center Myles Turner said. “It’s 82 games, some guys are playing through injuries, playing through fatigue. It is tough to bring it every night, but it’s something that we’ve just got to push through.”
Turner, who finished with 16 points, eight rebounds and four blocks, is only half right. Yes, it’s difficult to get amped against a team like Brooklyn (4-11), who were without point guard Jeremy Lin and will likely remain in the bottom of the standings.
But fatigue and injuries? Guys get hurt, sure. It’s part of the game. But those on the court still have to give effort and execute the fundamentals. George, Miles and any other player doesn’t have to suit up in order for his team to play well. Just ask Pacers coach Nate McMillan.
“Playing the game the right way, which is playing hard, playing together, playing unselfish basketball, we all can do that,” McMillan said. “That shouldn’t change how we play. Yes, we can (play with energy) with guys being injured. That’s the identity we want to create and the identity I expect us to create.”
And that identity manifested thanks in part to Glenn Robinson III, who started in place of George to score a career-high 20 points on 6-of-10 shooting. Robinson made his first four attempts from the floor, three coming from behind the arc, to provide an early boost during the first quarter when the Pacers trailed by seven.
Robinson’s hot-hand was representative of the rest of his team. By the end of the third quarter, with the Pacers leading 92-65, they made nearly 60 percent of their shots and more than 40 percent of their 3-pointers. Reserves Rodney Stuckey and Al Jefferson scored 18 and 16 points, respectively, combining to shoot 15-0f-24. Monta Ellis made all six of his attempts, and point guard Jeff Teague nearly notched his first triple-double, totaling nine points, nine boards and eight assists.
What stopped him? He sat the duration of the fourth quarter.
So what’s the difference between nights like Friday and others when Indiana seems lethargic and lifeless? Why can’t this team, as talented as it is, give consistent effort? Why are some nights a joy and others an obligation?
“As far as energy, the biggest thing I notice is we get up when we pressure the ball and we get activity and we got each other’s back,” Robinson said. “Myles gets a big blocked shot, and now we’re into it, you know? We communicate, we talk. That’s one thing I try to do when I come in. I talk, ‘Stuckey’s got ball, which side should I help?’ That just gets me involved in the game and it gets all of us kind of going.”
If good basketball, like healthy relationships, begins with communication, then Robinson is a regular Casanova. The Pacers should follow suit. If not, they'll remain in the basketball equivalent of the friend zone.